While many refugees show remarkable resilience, others need extra support from family, friends, communities and mental health experts.
UNHCR’s Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) programming includes advocacy and support for the identification and management of mental health screening and management into primary healthcare, refugee-specific technical guidance and partner trainings and the provision of essential medicines for treating refugees with mental, neurological and substance use conditions.
Refugee mental health and psychosocial wellbeing is an integral part of UNHCR’s approach to protection, public health and education. Forced displacement due to armed conflict, persecution or natural disasters put significant psychological stress on individuals, families and communities. Refugees not only experience atrocities prior to their flight, their living conditions in host countries can impose more stress and hardship. Refugees with preexisting mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and psychosis – often face greater challenges when trying to navigate asylum systems.
In many refugee situations, specialized mental health professionals are not present, especially for children and adolescents. When available, they often only reach a small proportion of refugees who need services. Therefore, UNHCR and partners invest in training and supervising general workers in providing mental health and psychosocial support.
Many refugee mental health and psychosocial concerns, however, can be best addressed within communities themselves. Where possible, UNHCR trains and supports refugee community outreach volunteers who guide other refugees on accessing services while fostering social cohesion and mutual support.
UNHCR advocates for the inclusion of refugees into national health systems and for the integration of mental health into primary healthcare. UNHCR trains health staff, such as general physicians and nurses, to identify and manage priority refugee mental health conditions. Non-specialists (social workers, community volunteers) also receive training on brief forms of psychological therapy. In some situations, UNHCR may fund mental health professionals (e.g. psychiatric nurses or psychiatrists) to address more complex refugee mental health conditions. UNHCR supplies ministries of health, local clinics and partners with medication to treat refugee mental health conditions and neurological disorders such as epilepsy.
UNHCR prioritizes working in partnership with refugee communities to provide appropriate mental health and psychosocial support services. Appropriate services mean they are available and aligned to the diverse needs of men, women, girls and boys of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and religions, including being made accessible for persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups in the refugee community.
UNHCR integrates mental health and psychosocial support into existing interventions. For example, sporting activities and computer and literacy classes support the development of coping mechanisms in addressing and alleviating stress. UNHCR establishes refugee support groups for those who may require more tailored support, including refugees with severe and chronic mental health conditions and intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Through UNHCR’s Child Protection programming, refugee children receive appropriate psychosocial support, including individual, family and group-based interventions. UNHCR establishes structured recreational and life skills activities for refugee children that are led by community members. Refugee parents and caregivers receive information on children’s mental health and wellbeing and have the opportunity to discuss their children’s and their own emotions and behavior in emergencies.
Gender-Based Violence Prevention and Response
UNHCR focuses on mental health and psychosocial wellbeing in case management for survivors of gender-based violence. UNHCR trains first-responder partner service providers on psychological first aid, including for clinical management of rape. Case managers receive training on linking survivors to available community-based psychosocial support, services and referrals.
UNHCR’s new education strategy, Refugee Education 2030, promotes conditions that foster social and emotional learning (SEL). The strategy calls for the provision of mental health and psychosocial support for refugee children so they can concentrate, learn and develop health relationships.